Witches of the fair land of Canada rejoice! Last week, the Canadian government decided to update its Criminal Code: The pending changes repeal outdated laws that criminalize witchcraft and dueling. The new Criminal Code will also provide more protections for sexual assault victims in court.
Currently, Section 365 of the Code states that it is illegal to "pretend to exercise or to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration," "tell fortunes," or pretend to know "from his skill" where or how something lost or stolen can be found. According to the National Post, the law is a "distant descendant of Medieval English laws that sentenced accused witches to burn at the stake."
Several people in Canada have actually been charged under Section 365. However, the cases have all been for alleged instances of major fraud. In 2009, Vishwantee Persaud was charged with "pretending" to practice witchcraft when she was accused of defrauding a lawyer out of $27,000 by posing as the spirit of his dead sister. And in 2012, a man named Gustavo Valencia Gomez was arrested and charged for convincing a woman that she was cursed and charging her $14,000 to remove the curse. The witchcraft charges were dropped after Gomez agreed to pay restitution to the victim.
Fraud is, clearly, a bad thing. But legal scholars have pointed out that the law unfairly singles out one religion and cultural practice. "Few commentators would argue the law should not protect people from frauds perpetrated under threat of misfortune or promise of unattainable goals by a charlatan. However, the provision that differentiates this type of fraud from others is mired in historic oppression of women and religious minorities, and is not necessary to prosecute fraud," Natasha Bakht and Jordan Palmer write in the journal Windsor Review of Legal and Social Issues.
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"The witchcraft provisions in the Criminal Code reflect a culture, perspective, and legal system of an entirely different era. They are reminiscent of a time when women who did not conform to societal norms were not only shunned, but penalized," Omar Ha-Redeye, a lawyer at Fleet Street law in Toronto, told Broadly. "These provisions also reflect a primarily Christian mindset, where non-Christian traditions, including what we now may refer to as Wicca, totemism, or animism, or other traditions, were demonized as being evil. It's perhaps no surprise then that even today these provisions are used primarily against women or against people who follow non-mainstream religious traditions."
Bakht and Palmer add that the law is superfluous to overarching fraud laws: "While there is a social good inherent in preventing fraud, the line between legitimate practices, such as religious prophecy or spiritualism, and illegitimate or criminal pretending seems arbitrarily drawn."
The Canadian pagan community has spent time trying to get the law repealed. According to some blogs, people have feared that any valid practitioner could be risking arrest for simply doing tarot readings as long as the law is on the books. Now that the law is set to be repealed, witches can rest (on a bed of crystals) a little easier.